The city of Haifa, where the Mediterranean Sea can be seen from almost every window and balcony, is blessed with a large natural bay, beaches open to the sea and more protected beaches. Haifa’s sea and beaches are shared by various populations: bathers, swimmers, sailors, sea athletes, beach athletes and walkers, not to mention a diverse and spectacular population that lives underwater
The bay of Israel
Israel’s coastline continues almost without “hiccups” until it reaches Haifa Bay, the largest bay in Israel bordered to the north by Acre. The sea meets Haifa for 15 kilometers. Half this distance has been occupied for a long time by heavy infrastucture (the port, military base, polluting factories). We didn’t start it – rather they (the British) did – but we certainly continued. The result is that half of the maritime and coastal asset that runs alongside Haifa is not at all accessible to the city’s residents and guests.
The southern beaches from Maksim Junction to Tirat Carmel are a sandy habitat where, naturally, human activity also concentrates. The further north you go, the rockier the substrate becomes. But unlike most beaches whose rocky platform consists of gravel, in Haifa the rock is calcareous because the marine environment is based around Mount Carmel, which is mainly limestone rock. The most prominent point of the interface between the mountain and the sea is the top of the Carmel – Stella Maris, which has the steepest of slopes and almost no beach spot.
The Carmel ridge does not end on the coastline. The mountain’s slopes dive into the depths of the sea, reaching a depth of about 300 meters and a distance of about 11 kilometers from the shore. Surveys conducted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority using underwater robots revealed at a depth of over 100 meters spectacular sponge gardens, a huge and colorful variety of sponge species that, like the coral reef in Eilat, create a three-dimensional structure that serves as habitat for a rich world of fish and invertebrates (starfish, sea anemones, etc.).
In light of these discoveries, the promotion of a large marine nature reserve began in 2017 to protect the underwater Carmel ridge, as a continuation of the established marine reserve that was declared in 2008. In its early stages, the Rosh Carmel Marine Reserve plan included the entire range of habitats and depths in the ridge identified during a strategic survey of the Mediterranean Sea, including the Bat Galim reef. However, in the early stages of planning it was decided for various reasons – such as proximity to the naval base, port and neighborhood – to exclude it from the nature reserve and not delay the plans.
Thanks to the efforts of many organizations (including the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Mediterranean People community of Rosh Carmel), the planning process for the Rosh Carmel marine reserve advanced very quickly. In 2019, the reserve plan was approved and on Independence Day, April 15, 2021, it was officially declared and Haifa gained a large and impressive marine nature reserve.
The municipality will not allow motorized sailing vessel activity west of longitude 34.9799796 oE, the eastern end of the “dogs’ beach,” to the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute. This stretch of beach attracts non-motorized marine sportsmen and women (windsurfers and surfers, kayakers, open-water swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers), and marine nature enthusiasts of course. Haifa has the largest number of scuba divers in Israel relative to its population (after Eilat), and although it has spectacular diving sites and a marine nature reserve, so far Haifa does not have a single scuba diving club.
Swimming with sea turtles
The Bat Galim reef is the ultimate marine nature site. Its geological and climatic characteristics create a unique marine habitat: the rock surface is shallow and continuous, one of the largest in the Israeli Mediterranean; unlike most of the shallow reefs on the country’s shores that are based on underwater gravel ridges, the reef’s infrastructure is hard limestone; the Bat Galim coastline is the only one in Israel that faces north and not west, and the structure of the Carmel and northward turn of the coastline create gulf conditions characterized by unique water flow and wind gust regimes.
“All of these create a shallow and protected lagoon, the like of which cannot be found elsewhere in the country,” says marine ecologist Sarah Ohayon, “but most people only know the blanket of the water surface.”
In 2015 Ohayon, together with marine conservationists Nadav Biran and Tal Raz, founded the Bat Galim Sea Defenders. Together with community volunteers, they conduct regular cleanup operations on beaches and at sea, report hazards such as vacationers’ waste, sewage flows and illegal fishing, document marine life and operate public information stations. Over the past five years they have uncovered unique marine natural values – many species of marine flora and fauna, and unique ecological phenomena that attract the attention of marine researchers and sea-loving citizens alike.
A short distance from the beach you can discover a variety of attractions and activity possibilities: just by snorkeling below the Bat Galim promenade, you can meet a variety of fish species alongside large animals such as sea turtles and rays. The encounter with these fascinating animals is very exciting, but also requires educational activity so as not to interfere with their daily routines.
Not far from the beach are two historical diving sites: about 100 meters away, opposite the Bat Galim neighborhood, rests the immigrant ship Haim Arlosoroff that carried 1,346 people and ran aground in 1947. Her remains, located opposite an Israel Navy training base, are evidence of the period of immigration and its fascinating story, unparalleled testimony in Israel in terms of its proximity to the coast and public accessibility.
About 600 meters from the shoreline’s breakwater and at a depth of about 12 meters is the Turkish cement ship – a merchant ship that sank off the coast of Bat Galim in 1998. Over the years it has become one of the most accessible and impressive diving sites along the Israeli coast. These two sites have evolved into artificial reefs that serve as home to a variety of fish and invertebrates. Due to their proximity to the beach, they have become a focal point for snorkelers and scuba divers.
During the bird migration seasons in spring and autumn, because it is a protected bay, the reef becomes a resting and feeding site for migratory seabirds, including species of seagulls, terns, cormorants and petrels. The winter storms also invite rare guests such as a common merganser, great shearwater or black-throated loon.
The sea is big, and the work is great. There is much to look forward to.